The Opaqueness of US Economic Policy

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It is not just the fear that the investigations into Russia’s attempt to influence the US election will distract from the Trump Administration’s economic program.  It is also that the economic agenda itself seems is less clear. 

That China was not cited as a currency manipulator is no major surprise.  Bush and Obama also made the threat on the campaign trail over jettison it when the were in office.  China has not been cited since 1994.  Although we argue the designation is not as onerous as it is frequently made to be, lack of use appears to have increased its symbolic importance. 

During the campaign and as recently as a fortnight ago, President Trump was talking about his willingness to address to “too big to fail” problem in the US financial sector.  There was explicit support for some kind of new Glass-Steagall which forced a separation between deposit-taking institutions and investment banks.  However, in recent testimony before the Senate,  Mnuchin played this down and denied a commitment to support a “full separation” of commercial and investment banks.

There was much debate in the primaries a year ago about how fast the US economy can grow.  Trump has talked about 5% and sometimes 4%.  The budget presented assumes 3% growth.  The Federal Reserve estimates that trend growth in the US is a little below 2.0%.    Obama was the first President since the end of WWII that did not record a single year of growth above 3.0%.  The last year that such growth was reported was 2005, and the last four-quarter period that averaged at least 3% was mid-2006.


Fed Chair Yellen recognizes that some supply-side reforms can boost growth potential.
  However, in the long run, growth is a function of hours worked and productivity.  Slower growth of the pool of available workers and weak productivity growth limits the growth potential of the economy.  There appears to be little thought given to boosting productivity, though the right kind of infrastructure investment can help.

Judging from the budget proposal, the Administration seems to be banking on boosting the labor force by making draconian cuts in the social safety net.  As if fewer life choices, greater susceptibility to illnesses, experience greater hardships, and reduced longevity is not a sufficient disincentive of poverty, the budget proposals won’t raise the cost of being poor.

Mnuchin previously said that high income earners would not be beneficiaries of tax reform.  This has become known as the “Mnuchin Rule,” which appears to have been repealed.   The Treasury Secretary softened his commitment by saying that the necessary compromises with Congress may violate his rule.   This seems disingenuous, as the budget proposals, first for the remainder of this year, and then for next year that came from the White House, before Congress even touched it, seemed to contradict the rule.

 El-Erian has argued that the problem is the sequencing of the President’s economic agenda.  He says the health care out not to have been the starting point.  Yet that seems to be politically naive.  Given the desire to exploit the Republican majority in both houses of Congress, then getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, which the GOP had harangued against for years, must be the centerpiece.  This has to do with repealing the tax cuts associated with the ACA that would free up funds to pay for broader tax reform, in a way that can be achieved through the reconciliation process of the legislative branch.

Moreover, when Trump was elected, the US was near full employment, the Fed’s inflation target and trend growth.  Many economists argued that economic stimulus risks accelerating inflation and forcing the Fed to move faster.   Simply put, health care reform was needed to tax reform.

However, the CBO says that rather than free up $1 trillion that was initially expected, the House version of the healthcare reform would only save $119 bln over a decade.  Also, the White House has become less sympathetic to the House’s border adjustment tax, which was to raise another $1 trillion that could have been used for tax reform.

Some observers argued that the rally in US stocks (exemplified by the Nov 2016-Feb 2017 10% rally in the S&P 500) was in anticipation of Trump’s three-prong economic strategy of deregulation, tax reform, and stimulus spending.   If the economic program is challenged by distraction and incoherence, then why, they ask, is the market making new highs?  It seems that one of the factors that make equities appear attractive, despite arguably stretched valuations, low interest rates.  Low interest rates are not only an under-appreciated boost to many corporate earnings, but also makes the alternative to equities less attractive.

The uncertainty over the trajectory of US economic policy is likely to continue at least for the next several months.  There is some hope that the Senate can do its version of health care reform before the summer recess.  Ironically, Trump’s budget proposals assume the initial House health care bill ($150 mln deficit reduction).  Mnuchin initially suggested tax reform could be complete by the August recess but has conceded that year-end may be more likely.    And of course, this assumes that the political maelstrom is not a significant distraction from the economic agenda.